Transgender athlete ban heads to full Florida House

A proposal to ban transgender females from taking part in girls’ or women’s high-school and college sports is teed up for consideration by the full Florida House of Representatives, after a Republican-controlled education panel overrode fiery objections Tuesday.

The House Education & Employment Committee voted 15-6 to approve the proposal (HB 1475) sponsored by Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, with Rep. James Bush, D-Miami, the only Democrat supporting the bill.

Dubbed the "Fairness In Women’s Sports Act," the proposal would make participation in athletics contingent on determining a student’s "biological sex," a disputed term that refers to the sex assigned at birth.

Tuck said "inherent, biological differences between men and women" give males an edge in sporting events.

"American sprinter Allyson Felix is the fastest woman in the world. She has more gold medals than Usain Bolt," Tuck said, referring to a famed male sprinter. "But yet, her personal best in the 400 meters can be beaten by hundreds of high school boys."

Rep. Kristen Arrington, D-Kissimmee, questioned whether the bill is needed, as governing organizations of high school and college sports already have rules addressing the issue. 

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"The Florida High School Athletic Association and the NCAA, they already have existing policies in place for almost a decade for transgender girls to compete fairly with other girls," Arrington said. "Why is this policy not already sufficient?"

Tuck cited differences in the organizations’ policies and said her bill "strikes a balance and makes sure that women aren’t competing unfairly against biological men."

Arrington proposed amendments aimed at softening the measure, but Republicans rejected them. One proposal would have exempted transgender girls who have taken hormone-replacement therapy and testosterone blockers for a year. 

Abigail O’Laughlin, a former high-school athlete from Okaloosa County, opposed the measure.

"I am quite honestly offended that the claim of protecting women is being used to exclude transgender individuals, when there are far bigger issues at stake when it comes to equity for women," O’Laughlin told the committee.

Bill opponents and proponents who spoke during the meeting both contended that "science" backs their positions.

Paul Arons, a physician who said his practice has included treating transgender people, took issue with proponents’ assertions that the bill is in keeping with scientific consensus.

"As a scientist, I want to represent science accurately. Young transgender subjects of HB 1475 have a scientifically validated female gender identity. This bill is an assault on their personhood," Arons said.

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But Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Christian Family Coalition of Florida, also pointed to science as he supported the proposal.

"Please follow the science, follow the biology. A yes vote is a vote for fairness and a vote for equal rights for women and women’s sports," Verdugo said.

The proposal would give a legal cause of action to athletes who have been "deprived of an athletic opportunity."

Under the measure, students’ schools would have to resolve disputes "by requesting that the student provide a health examination and consent form or other statement signed by the student's personal health care provider which must verify the student's biological sex."

Opponents argue that Florida has had a negligible amount of complaints about transgender athletes participating in sports, and Tuck pointed only to out-of-state disputes when trying to illustrate a need for the legislation.

Arrington, like other opponents, cautioned that passing such legislation will lead to sports organizations such as the NCAA and large corporations taking their business to other states.

"It’s discriminatory and bad for business and our economy. Our children don’t need this now. These kids have survived school shootings, underfunding, overcrowding, and now a pandemic. This is the last thing they need to contend with. Let them play sports," Arrington said.

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The issue has emerged as one of the most hotly contested topics of the 2021 legislative session, and opponents Tuesday decried a "coordinated, muti-state attack" on transgender people.

More than 25 other states with Republican-controlled state houses have introduced or passed similar measures. In March, more than 500 college athletes signed an open letter addressed to NCAA President Mark Emmert about legislation in other states.

"You have been silent in the face of hateful legislation in states that are slated to host championships, even though those states are close to passing anti-transgender legislation," the letter said.

A similar Senate bill (SB 2012) has been approved by two committees and would need approval from the Rules Committee to be considered by the full chamber.

The Senate measure, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, is less stringent than the outright ban proposed in the House. It includes an exception for "persons who transition from male to female" if they meet certain conditions, such as specified testosterone levels.